How PowerPoint can kill a message

PowerPoint has been used in business meetings, classrooms and conferences in one form or another since 1987.  It’s the go-to all-purpose presentation tool.

Most people have endured the PowerPoint experience. The darkened room, the seemingly endless bullet-pointed lists…zzz.

When used for short, punchy presentations there’s probably nothing wrong with PowerPoint. But all too often, instead of getting your message across in an interesting, informative way, this handy piece of software can actually kill it.

Instead of connecting and engaging an audience, PowerPoint can act as a barrier to real communication.

I was reminded of this when I recently rediscovered Peter Norvig’s brilliant PowerPoint parody of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Peter Norvig is currently head of research at Google but in the late 80s was a senior computer scientist at NASA.  Following two failed missions to Mars, various NASA teams embarked on lengthy meetings to investigate what went wrong. PowerPoint was used extensively. Norvig was convinced PowerPoint “wasn’t getting to the heart of the matter. It was distancing people from the issues.” You can watch an interview with him here.

So he decided to take a famous, historic speech and see what PowerPoint would make of it. The speech he chose was the short but iconic Gettsyburg Address, given by US President Lincoln to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in November 1863 at Gettsburg, Pennsylvania -the site of a decisive American Civil War battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln, of course, had no visual aids to support his speech. Like all great orators, he relied on the eloquence and power of his words and to get his message across. To Lincoln and his contemporaries, a bullet point was just that – the pointed end of a bullet.

You can see Norvig’s original website with slide pack and notes here. However, here are the six slides that show how the life and power can be sucked out of a brilliant speech:

Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint































See what I mean? Would Churchill’s stirring “Fight them on the beaches” or Martin Luther King’s superb “I have a dream” speech have had the same impact if delivered in PowerPoint. I think not.

By all means use PowerPoint but remember to let your words do the talking -not the flash multimedia presentation software.

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